I’m always a little wary when I walk into a room where I am supposed to watch a play and there is more space for the stage than for the audience. That was the case when I first walked into West of Lenin theater in Fremont to watch the preview of Forward Flux’s double feature “las mariposas Y los muertos” and “No More Sad Things.”
But the two plays offer an evening of thought-provoking theater.
I have a very real fear of participatory theater. Let’s call it the after-effect of previous performance art gone wrong. There were only two rows for the audience, lined up on either side of a rectangular space with a stage on either end. I braved a seat in the front row and braced myself for what might unfold.
The lights dimmed and “las mariposas Y los muertos,” written by Benjamin Benne, began with an older Mexican woman, Nana (played by Anabel V. Hovig) delivering a long and poetic soliloquy in Spanish about seasons and death and the butterflies that migrate to Mexico annually when the veil between life and death is supposedly the thinnest — the Day of the Dead. The play has some Spanish dialogue, but it’s mostly in English.
The next scene introduces us to two Mexican sisters Elena (Sophie Franco) and Celestina (Jordi Montes) and the oldest sister’s white bestie, Molly (Grace Carmack).
After they attend a trendy music festival where the highlight (lowlight) was some white guys playing Afropop, the three women decide to form a band called Las Mariposas.
“las mariposas Y los muertos” becomes part concert, part play, a nuanced and pitch-perfect plot that explores the complexities of cultural appropriation, assimilation, death, grief, coping mechanisms, cross cultural relationships, privilege and family. The staging was dynamic. The acting was poignant. All of the characters felt three-dimensional and authentic. Even the way language was used both as bridge and barrier really work beautifully to enhance the story.
And I did have to participate, but not by being pulled onto to the stage (thank God). Instead I was mentally drawn into the conversation onstage that relates to what is happening in our country right now. Right now, especially as President Donald Trump ends the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, it feels like the entire country is talking about who gets to be an American and what rights and privileges are afforded to them.
“las mariposas Y los muertos” shines a light on the silent sacrifices made by many to blend in. It taps into this greater conversation with insight, moments of levity, and really well written dialogue that leaves you thinking long after the lights have come up.
After a quick stage change we were invited back into the space for the second play, “No More Sad Things” by Hansol Jung.
Gone were the album covers, tree branches and musical instruments. Now both stages were bare and in between was a black platform like an island.
Nabilah Ahmed, who plays a number of supporting characters — and sometimes stands in for a prop — began to strum a ukulele and I felt myself transported to Hawaii. Jessiee (Kiki Abba) and Kahekili (Lance Valdez) begin their journey towards one another through the telling of two dreams alternating on opposite stages.
Though there were practically no props or scenery at all, the ocean felt like a fourth character. There was a magical sense of place. The actors were all dressed in shades of blue.
As the play unfolded, I found myself completely charmed by the imaginative approach to story telling, the humor and also the realness.
I hesitate to say more about “No More Sad Things” than that it definitely did not go where I thought it was going. There was something grand about being surprised.
“No More Sad Things” is about love, family, forgiveness and grief. It also tackles the complex relationship of tourists and natives.
The suspended reality of being on vacations can make you feel like you could put all the sad things on hold until you get back. Except of course the sad things are never as far away as we wish, geographically or in terms of time.
Lance Valdez plays Kahekili as a hilarious and engaging character, but Kiki Abba as Jessiee gave the standout performance of the evening. She made me laugh so hard I thought hard cider would come out my nose and in the quieter moments I felt in her silences something deeply resonant.
Though the two plays are very different in their themes and approach, they are both really well written, beautifully nuanced, and will leave you thinking long after you leave the theater.
You can catch both plays at West of Lenin, 203 N 36TH St., in Seattle from now through Oct. 7. Tickets are available online.